Staff wellbeing: Complete the stress cycle and avoid burn-out

Written by: Emily Kenneally | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Stress hormones have an important job to do, but they are not designed to stay in our systems permanently. Emily Kenneally offers seven ways to complete your stress cycle and three tips to avoid burn-out

Our 2022 Teacher Wellbeing Index found that overall stress levels have increased when compared to 2021, with 75% of teachers and education staff describing themselves as stressed.

An even higher percentage (78%) said they experienced mental health symptoms due to their work (see Headteacher Update, 2022).

The truth is our bodies are not designed to cope with a constant or long-term presence of stress hormones. These hormones are messengers, intended to be present in the body for short periods. Their long-term or chronic presence in our bodies can have significant health consequences. Both physically and mentally.

While it is clear that it is time to invest in the education workforce and to remove the well-documented drivers of significant stress in the system, it is still helpful to know how to protect yourself and your colleagues against stress and burn-out.

Emily Nagoski, who helps women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies, and her sister Amelia Nagoski, a conductor and author whose work focuses on the human body, explain in their 2019 book Burnout that in order to avoid burn-out we need to learn to complete the body’s “stress cycle”.

The stress cycle starts when we perceive a threat. Something happens – maybe an Ofsted inspection – and the body releases stress hormones.

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But what about after the stressful event? The Ofsted inspection might be over but your heart might still be pounding and your hands might still be sweaty.

Put simply, stress doesn’t leave your body because the stressor is gone. We need to find a way to tell our bodies that we are no longer under threat so that they can stop producing stress hormones. The Nagoski sisters call this “completing the stress cycle”.

Below are seven evidence-based, and readily available, ways to complete your stress cycle and start feeling better in your body.

  • Move: Run, swim, dance (whatever you enjoy – the aim is not to train for the Olympics). The Nagoskis note that movement is “your first line of attack in the battle against burn-out”. Around 20 to 30 minutes a day is ideal, but anything is better than nothing. Try not to put pressure on yourself.
  • Social interaction: Talking to colleagues can help boost our mood and reassure us that the world is a safe place to live. Laughing together – and even just reminiscing about the times you’ve laughed together – increases relationship satisfaction and releases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin.
  • Connect with others: A 20-second hug with someone you hold dear has been shown to lower stress levels as much as exercise. And it doesn’t have to be physical affection – simply speaking to someone with whom you share a special connection can make a huge difference to how you feel.
  • Breathe: Deep, slow breaths can help regulate the stress response. For a simple, practical exercise you can: Breathe in to a slow count of five. Hold that breath for five. Exhale for a slow count of 10. Pause for another count of five. Repeat as needed.
  • Sleep: It can be difficult to sleep when we are feeling stressed. But getting a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep wherever possible can be a great tool in the fight against stress. You can read more about sleep in the Education Support sleep guide (see further information).
  • Cry: There is no shame in crying! Crying may not change the situation that caused the stress but allowing yourself to cry after a stressful event is shown to help by releasing feel good hormones. And remember, it is okay to talk about how you feel. Don’t suffer in silence.
  • Get creative: Engaging in a creative activity you enjoy today – whether it be music, art or sport – has been shown to lead to more energy, excitement, and enthusiasm tomorrow.

Burn-out: Spotting the signs

Burn-out is considered to have a wide range of symptoms, however three main signs of the condition are:

  • Exhaustion: For teachers this may include both emotional and physical exhaustion. Evidence of this may be frustration and irritability, mood swings, impaired concentration, chronic fatigue and insomnia as well as physical symptoms such as increased illness, palpitations, gastrointestinal pain, headaches and dizziness.
  • Detachment from the job: For teachers this may develop through cynicism and pessimism towards teaching, students, colleagues or the school itself. The person with burn-out may prefer to avoid contact and involvement with others, and experience a loss of enjoyment from the things that once brought pleasure.
  • Reduced performance: For teachers this may develop through negative feelings, lack of productivity and poor performance. Evidence of this may be feelings of hopelessness and apathy, low self-confidence, increased irritability with one’s self and others, increased time spent completing tasks and apathy to want to do so.

Final thought

I would recommend learning more about completing your stress cycle by reading the Nagoskis’ excellent book Burnout. You can also download or print Education Support’s stress cycle poster (see further information) to put up in your staffroom or share with colleagues. Finally, if you are struggling with stress or burn-out, don’t suffer alone. You can speak to a qualified counsellor at Education Support, 24/7 (all details below).

  • Emily Kenneally is the content and media manager at Education Support, a UK charity dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the education workforce. For previous articles from Education Support, go to

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital version of this edition is available via

Further information & resources

  • Education Support: For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, contact the free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or The charity offers free peer support groups for heads and deputies via
  • Education Support: Teacher Wellbeing Index, November 2022:
  • Education Support: Getting a good night’s sleep: A guide for teachers and education staff:
  • Education Support: Stress cycle poster (pdf):
  • Headteacher Update: Staff wellbeing: ‘We are witnessing the slow disintegration of the workforce’, November 2022:
  • Nagoski & Nagoski: The cure for burnout (hint: it isn’t self-care), TED Talk:
  • Nagoski & Nagoski: What is the stress cycle and how can you complete it? YouTube video, April 2019:
  • Nagoski & Nagoski: Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle, Ballantine Books, March 2019.

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